Samuel Johnson’s Truth

by ttucker23 on March 5, 2009

Samuel Johnson, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds around 1769.

Samuel Johnson, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds around 1769.

Every serious artist must take a position with regards to truth. Samuel Johnson’s position is fascinating, because it seems to involve vast contradictions and yet manages to resolve them in a world view that is consistent.

Adherence to truth is a fundamental tenet for Johnson, as we see throughout his own writings and his conversations in Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  Here is one of the best descriptions from Boswell’s Life:

Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness: I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. ‘Accustom your children (said he), constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.
Life of Johnson by James Boswell, page 899.

Johnson goes on to say: ‘It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.’

As Mrs Thrale herself objects, it seems hardly possible to follow such a practice. Indeed, throughout Boswell’s Life of Johnson we see countless contradictions between what he says and what he does. But Johnson was wise enough to understand that within these contradictions lies the essence of humanity. As he says in Rambler 14:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues, which he neglects to practise; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory.

Johnson is only too aware of man’s inability to live how he knows he ought. ‘A man writes much better than he lives.’ But as Philip Davis says in his essay ‘The life of Samuel Johnson’ (published in The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson):

Precisely because the whole of his meaning was never contained in a single great work, Johnson stands for the life that always lies outside literature as well as within it. In that way, by refusing to make great writing separate from efforts at ordinary living, Johnson is the the finest of human encouragers.

Johnson’s truth, then, exists in the balance between idealism and practicality. It is fully conscious of the contradiction, and even encourages it, for it is in this gap that the human condition takes place. Johnson’s essay in Adventurer 11 provides the kind of encouragement Davis was referring to (quoted by Philip Davis in ‘The life of Samuel Johnson’):

To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity; the next, is to strive, and deserve to conquer: but he whose life has passed without a contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit, can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence; and if he is content with his own character, must owe his satisfaction to insensibility.

This is what makes us human, and it is only a full commitment to truth that makes this possible. As he says to Boswell in the Life of Johnson: ‘Without truth there is a dissolution of society’.

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